Who’s Afraid of AWDU?

At long last, two members of the NYU AWDU caucus have seen fit to respond, formally and publicly, to arguments I have been making for years in every possible forum I could. I am struck by their timing but still happy that they have put something out. I have always believed that AWDU would eventually crash on the rocks of evidence and argument. I believe this now more than ever

Below are my responses to the counterarguments they make in each major section of their piece.

Majorities Matter

Raheja and Larson somewhat surprisingly admit that “[a]t first glance, the strongest aspect of Denz’s case against AWDU is the emphasis he places on the need to win majorities.” But Raheja’s and Larson’s considerations do nothing to weaken my case against AWDU on these grounds for the simple reason that they never address the fact that the AWDU caucus with by far the greatest power and longevity, the one that leads UAW Local 2865 in the University of California system,  has consistently “organized” among only a tiny minority of the workers they represent, holding a long campaign for the contract settled in 2014 featuring “strikes” with less than ten percent participation, a strike authorization vote with seventeen percent participation, and a contract ratification vote with nine percent participation. Who’s afraid of the rank-and-file? Sounds like AWDU is!

Raheja and Larson pretend that AWDU caucuses share the usual commitment to majoritarian  organizing and that what makes them distinctive is how they use those majorities. In fact, the real difference is that AWDU caucuses have generally disdained majoritarian organizing, not engaging in it at all or treating it as a last resort when the more campus activist tactics fail.

Raheja and Larson present a history of the NYU GSOC recognition campaign that is simply fanciful: “good relationships with the employer continued to be prized over any reliance on workers themselves to organize direct actions or encouraging other member-led organizing initiatives.” What? A campaign defined by a strike that lasted nearly an entire academic year was characterized by seeking “good relationships with the employer?” As with any campaign, critiques of this strike and of the strategy of NYU’s long recognition drive following the Bush NLRB decision are surely possible. Some are in fact collected in an excellent published volume to which many graduate student workers who actually participated in the organizing at that time contributed; I find some of these contributions more convincing than others. Conciliatory to management this campaign was not, by any reasonable standard.

It is also of course untrue that graduate student workers did not engage in any direct actions over the course of the nearly eight years between NYU’s withdrawal of recognition and its reversal in 2013, even if Raheja and Larson did not at the time participate in those. I remember blowing up GSOC balloons with other grad workers and UAW representatives and giving them to thousands and thousands of NYU students to take into a graduation back in 2013, which certainly didn’t lead to “good relationships” with John Sexton and other NYU administrators present at that event! I realize I sound like a curmudgeon sometimes, but I actually enjoy a good direct action as much as the next graduate student.

Raheja and Larson are welcome to make a serious argument about what would have been a better strategy for securing union recognition at NYU, keeping in mind that NYU remains the only private university to have ever agreed to recognize graduate student workers without being legally required to do so. They are welcome to claim, for example, that rallies with piñatas would have been more effective than blowing up balloons. Instead, their primary argument seems to be that because achieving recognition took a long time, the wrong tactics were therefore used. But unless they can point to any other example where the goal was achieved more quickly under otherwise similar circumstances, indeed, any example where it was achieved under similar circumstances at all, then there is no reason to accept their view. There is no such case—NYU is the only private university, and surely among the only U.S. universities period, to agree to union recognition for graduate student workers when it was not legally required to do so. Overall, NYU’s recognition campaign would certainly seem primarily a success to emulate, not a failure whose mistakes should be a cautionary tale.

Also fanciful is Raheja and Larson’s suggestion that there was some drastic transformation in the strategy of the recognition campaign that led to a different result. This is a total invention on their part without any trace of relationship to reality. There simply was no such change of course; the eventual victory was the culmination of a consistent strategy, not the result of a sudden shift. They are right that winning recognition required “a sustained organizing campaign which mounted faculty, student, and community pressure against the administration.” They are wrong that this in any way represented a departure from what had already been the recognition campaign’s approach for years prior to that. Raheja and Larson are also wrong to oppose “private discussions” with the employer against direct actions or other public tactics to achieve a goal. The recognition agreement with NYU was negotiated off-the-record, as too was the contract once NYU AWDU realized there just wasn’t any other way it was going to happen. This in no way prevented workers from strongly supporting the union through petitions, related campaigns such as protesting health care increases, and direct actions.

What Raheja and Larson do not note about majority support in the context of graduate student worker unions is that it evaporates almost instantaneously because of high turnover from semester to semester. By implying that the repeated petitions to gain majority support were somehow redundant, they conjure an image of bumbling union bureaucrats stuck in their ways who lack the clear strategic vision that enlightened academics bring. In reality, demonstrating majority support year after year was the single strongest proof of the union’s democratic mandate and the basis for whatever real, serious further actions the union took. Raheja and Larson’s flippancy about the need for demonstrating majority support over and over again in order to win a campaign among graduate student workers was exactly the kind of attitude NYU was counting on for the campaign to eventually just die out on its own! Thankfully, Raheja and Larson were not in charge of the strategy for GSOC’s recognition campaign. When we finally did get our election, the strong basis in majoritarian organizing was crucial to turning out a majority of all eligible voters to vote “yes,” which, in turn, strengthened our position at the contract bargaining table.

Contract Bargaining at NYU

Raheja and Larson contend, “The bargaining committee — handpicked by UAW staff organizers to prevent radicals from playing a role — was so demoralized by the lack of progress to a contract that in summer 2014, half of them either dropped out entirely or broke from the concessionary strategy, soon to be supported by over a hundred GSOC members in an open letter.” The spring 2014 Bargaining Committee, including Raheja herself, was democratically elected. It is especially ironic for Raheja to complain about “radicals” (of whom she apparently considers herself one) having no role when the fact that she became a Bargaining Committee member at all resulted from my decision not to campaign with the slate that eventually won so that she could join it instead. (Raheja secured the support of both slates by misrepresenting herself to ours ideologically, and so she got the most votes because she had everyone campaigning for her.) I have lived to regret that decision!

Moreover, Raheja herself played no small role in the demoralization of other committee members, dragging out Bargaining Committee meetings for hours by constantly revisiting questions that had already been decided, adopting right-wing anti-union rhetoric to third-party UAW representatives and undermine trust within the committee, and generally making every aspect of being involved with the negotiation process as unpleasant as she could. She no doubt considered it among her proudest accomplishments when four of the eight committee members, disproportionately women and international students from underrepresented schools and departments, did indeed resign their positions so that her friends could win a different set of elections in the fall.

Raheja and Larson also claim that “the UAW leadership’s bargaining during the first nine months was notable for its stalled progress, opacity to GSOC membership, and a conciliatory stance toward management that failed to secure many gains.” At the time, Raheja was more worried that a deal might be reached so quickly that she and her friends would not have time to drive the other Bargaining Committee members out and win a second set of elections! How else to explain the demand that the union stop meeting with NYU until a new set of elections could be held? The agreement we ended up reaching with NYU in March 2015 after almost an additional academic year was actually not all that much better than the university’s first economic proposal in May 2014, and in some respects it was actually worse. (I have already documented this in thousands upon thousands of words in this blog and won’t repeat it all now.) It could have been achieved much sooner, without the resulting losses in retroactive wages and benefits, had the NYU AWDU Bargaining Committee simply acted more decisively by taking a strike authorization vote earlier on and setting a strike deadline in the fall semester.

Raheja also claims that “AWDU organizers obtained the majority of strike authorization votes,” omitting that this is only true when one includes the one AWDU organizer (herself) who was also a member of the paid staff of the union. (That’s right, Natasha Raheja was happy to take money from the nefarious “business” UAW!) As I indicated in my piece, a majority of the strike authorization votes were turned out by four staff paid with UAW members’ dues. (Except the staff, no graduate student worker at NYU paid a cent of dues to the UAW until the contract was ratified.) Neither in this instance nor anywhere else in the piece do Raheja and Larson acknowledge the indispensable role of other UAW members’ support in winning the organizing and contract campaigns.

Sisterhood of the Dwindling Membership

As noted, Raheja and Larson do not acknowledge or address the fact that the AWDU caucus in the UC system never at any point in its long contract campaign engaged a majority of workers the union represents (not in ratifying initial demands, not in their strike authorization vote, not in their “strikes,” and not in their contract ratification-in fact, only one of these even reached double-digit percentages!). Nor do they address the fact that the local’s membership rate fell below majority under AWDU’s leadership for the first time in decades and has probably fallen even lower by now than the 38% I cited for 2014.

They nevertheless try to claim that the contract UC AWDU negotiated ending in 2014 was somehow a great victory. Obviously, this contradicts their own laudable admission earlier in the piece that winning majorities is “essential to the campaign.” To be crystal clear, UC AWDU never got anything close to a majority even one single time over the course of their eighteen-month campaign (the Californians admitted it right to my face at the CGEU conference in 2015), yet that apparently gives Raheja and Larson no pause about their sister caucus’s effectiveness as a union leadership.

In presenting the economic gains in the 2014 contract as substantial by comparing it to previous contracts UAW Local 2865 negotiated (with majority support, no less), they ignore two factors. First, prior contracts had been negotiated under conditions of relative state-wide austerity during California’s budget crisis. Under the majoritarian pre-AWDU leadership, UAW Local 2865 won wage increases even when other unions representing campus workers were accepting freezes or cuts. By contrast, the state allocation to the UC system had gone up 20% in 2013-2014, the year that AWDU “won” a 0% increase. There is no way to deny they left money on the table.

Second, accepting a contract that does not include retroactive wage and benefit increases sets a bad precedent for future bargaining, encouraging the university administration to drag out negotiations past contract expiration (even if AWDU itself doesn’t do it for ideological reasons) and omit the retroactive increases. That’s why it’s a “concession.”

As for the social justice gains in UC AWDU’s 2014 contract, to the extent that they are real they are good, but AWDU also exaggerated them. (My comrade Jason Struna has addressed this issue thoroughly.) In any event, they do not somehow excuse an organizing strategy that failed to engage the overwhelming preponderance of workers a union represents.

Still Spinning Social Justice

After waxing poetic about a grievance the union won based on language in the contract, Raheja and Larson argue for their position that graduate students should be entitled to union membership regardless of whether they have ever worked under the contract or paid union dues. They cite the fact that UAW Locals 2865 and 4121 do this. However, these locals do not include workers who are not graduate students, and this issue of the membership definition therefore does not raise the same problem of equity between graduate students and other workers in the union.

Raheja and Larson do not really address the basic point that it is unfair for someone who never works under the contract or pays dues to have the same vote as someone who does both of those things. Nor do they address the fact that this would indeed lead to overrepresentation of disproportionately white and socioeconomically privileged graduate students at the expense of other workers in the Local who are disproportionately older people of color, long-time New York City residents, and men and women with dependents. Again, their total refusal to address these issues constitutes a tacit admission that they simply have no good response.

Instead, they focus on my choice of the verb “gentrify” as a description of what they want graduate students to do to Local 2110, which seems to have really gotten under their skin. I heard from Local 2110 members who are not graduate students that they agree this is an accurate description of their own perception of NYU AWDU’s attempt to under-enfranchise them in favor of graduate students who do not work under the contract or pay dues. Raheja and Larson point to the fact that there have been instances of homeless graduate students as evidence that graduate students themselves couldn’t also be (either literal or metaphorical) gentrifiers. But this is a non sequitur. It has nothing to do with whether it is fair to give graduate students union membership rights when they do not work under the contract or pay dues.

Raheja and Larson also claim that the Local’s eligibility rules deprive GSOC of adequate representation because only five Joint Council seats were filled out of eight. But this is question-begging. After all, the only reason five seats were filled instead of eight is that only five eligible candidates submitted their names; others who did so had never worked under the contract or paid union dues. Had NYU AWDU wanted to fill eight GSOC seats, it should have recruited eight people who had ever worked and paid dues under the contract out of literally thousands of such graduate students at NYU.

And yes, it doesn’t change anything that NYU AWDU also supports Black Lives Matter, BDS, or any number of other causes, however sincere that support might be. The only elected leaders in Local 2110 who support NYU AWDU’s position on membership eligibility are themselves graduate students affiliated with the NYU AWDU caucus; others reject it as unfair to the rest of the Local.

Raheja and Larson’s (non-)response is not a refutation but much rather a vindication of arguments I have been making for years in every possible forum. I am optimistic that the tide even in graduate student worker unions may be turning against this version of academic exceptionalism and toward a labor movement in which academics stand alongside other workers rather than bossing, bullying, condescending, and lying.

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